NTSB blames ‘green’ battery for Boeing’s woes

Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michal Conger

The National Transportation Safety Board says the design and manufacturing of the Boeing Dreamliner’s battery was likely to blame in the Jan. 7 fire that occurred on a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 grounded at Boston Logan Airport.

Following the fire, Japan and the U.S. both ordered airlines to ground their fleets of 787s until investigation determines the cause of a string of battery-related problems with 787s.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said Thursday the board has ruled out several external causes for the fire, and is now reviewing design and manufacturing the batteries, according to a press release.

“Our task now is to see if enough — and appropriate — layers of defense and adequate checks were built into the design, certification and manufacturing of this battery,” Hersman said.

The NTSB’s assessment differs from that of Boeing, which insists its lithium ion battery is safe. During testing, the company found no evidence of cell-to-cell propagation or fire, according to the NTSB — but both of these occurred in the Japan Airlines fire.

“The failure rate was higher than predicted as part of the certification process and the possibility that a short circuit in a single cell could propagate to adjacent cells and result in smoke and fire must be reconsidered,” Hersman said.

The problem may lie in the “green” design Boeing was so proud of, according to MIT Technology Review. Instead of just fossil fuel, the Dreamliner uses lithium ion battery technology, which stores electricity and allows the aircraft to run “cleaner.”

Boeing touted the design leading up to the aircraft’s October 2011 debut, noting the Dreamliner runs on 20 percent less fuel than other airplanes in its class.

But lithium ion batteries also have a record of catching fire in laptops, cell phones and even “green” electronic cars like the Chevy Volt. In fact, General Motors in January 2012 recalled the 8,000 Volts it had already sold when three of them caught fire after crash tests.

The Obama administration has poured money into these batteries, according to a January report by The Washington Examiner. The report details subsidies awarded to lithium ion battery makers, noting that the first grant was a stimulus grant for $249 million to A123 Systems in December 2009. A123 later filed for bankruptcy and was purchased by a Chinese company.

The report also details a slew of other grants to maker of the troubled battery:

Obama toured the LG Chen lithium ion battery plant in Holland, Michigan in August 2011. The South Korean company got $151 million in federal subsidies, but it has yet to produce a single battery and furloughed its workers last fall.

Ener1, an Indianapolis-based lithium ion battery maker, received $118.5 million in federal money in 2009, but filed for bankruptcy last year.

The president awarded $529 million to electric car company Fisker, which utilized lithium ion batteries supplied by A123. At least two battery fires have been reported in Fisker vehicles, all of which have been recalled.

Obama issued a $465 million loan guarantee to Tesla Motors. The lithium ion battery in a Tesla reportedly burst into flames last year after not being recharged for a long period of time.


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